Future astronauts may someday explore Mars using winning concepts from NASA’s 2015 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Competition.

Sixteen teams competed in the contest sponsored by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), which challenges graduate and undergraduate students to solve real-life space exploration challenges. This year, the competition asked teams to develop a mission with innovative approaches and new technologies allowing astronauts to be less dependent on resources transported from Earth. 

The teams presented their research and designs for full-scale mission plans before industry and NASA judges during a three-day forum June 14-17 in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

“Some of the teams had ideas that NASA might be able to use as we venture out beyond low-Earth orbit,” says Pat Troutman, Human Exploration Strategic Analysis lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “The judges and I were impressed by the students’ engineering skills and innovative thinking.” 

The top overall honor went to students from the University of Maryland, College Park, who presented a space architecture using the moon as a fueling stop for Mars-bound spacecraft by creating fuel from lunar surface materials. The team also placed first in the undergraduate division.

Students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida, claimed second place and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, placed third. Both of these schools presented entry, decent and landing concepts for a pathfinder mission to demonstrate placing a 20 metric ton payload on the surface of Mars. The student team from Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, placed first overall in the graduate division.

The two top overall finishers will present papers detailing their research at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Conference in Pasadena, California, in September. NASA will provide a cash award to help offset travel expenses.

The teams developed their mission focused on one of four themes that could allow astronauts to be less dependent on resources transported from Earth: Earth independent Mars pioneering; Earth independent lunar pioneering; Mars moons prospector and large-scale Mars entry, descent and landing. Deep space missions like the journey to Mars will require humans to travel for long periods of time and to live and work independently from Earth, without the frequent resupply shipments. That means understanding the impact of utilizing resources both from the moon and Mars, and figuring out if their use is viable will be critically important to sustainable human exploration.

By participating in this design competition, which is sponsored by NASA’s Advanced Space Exploration Division (AES) at NASA Headquarters and the Space Mission Analysis Branch at NASA’s Langley Research Center, students receive real-world experience that parallels current NASA human space exploration mission design planning and may augment future NASA missions.

For a complete list of teams and more information about the RASC-AL competition, visit: http://www.nianet.org/RASCAL 

For more information about the National Institute of Aerospace, please visit: http://www.nianet.org

For more information about NASA’s journey to Mars: http://www.nasa.gov/content/journey-to-mars-overview